Is art incompatible with activism? It’s a pretty heavy opening question, as opening questions go, but this is the suggestion put forward by Matt Adams of Blast Theory. He’s speaking at Coney’s Show & Tell Salon on activism, a half-lecture, half-conversation hosted at Camden People’s Theatre as part of this year’s Sprint festival. His argument is not that art isn’t political – it emphatically is – but that art does something very different to activism, it serves a different purpose. This is not so hard to accept. It’s his other suggestion, that many of us might be more comfortable with exploring politics through art rather than committing to direct political action, that really stings.
Another difficult question was asked earlier in the night, by activist Richard Paton. Observing the performative turn of much activism – heavily symbolic gestures, enthusiastic dressing up, action that looks a lot like theatricality – he wonders whether a lot of today’s activism is just cultural or intellectual activity dressed up as political activity. While large-scale but simple acts of symbolism, such as the sea of Occupy tents outside St Paul’s, still have an undeniably potent impact, there’s a real concern for activists that self-conscious performativity is more exclusive than it is communicative. However much we might argue about the real effects of political theatre, politics as theatre carries just as many problems.
But what has this got to do with theatre itself? Going back to Adams’ striking distinction between art and activism, he turns to a beautiful quote from novelist Jane Smiley: “confusion is like seeing without knowing”. His suggestion is that this is what great art captures – as opposed to activism, which aims to present its ideas in a way that allows them to be acted upon. Art can give us confusion and complexities, situations in which the answer is not clear, in which contemplation or perhaps, in the case of interactive work, a different kind of action is required. As Adams puts it: what are the possibilities when the public act but are not activists?
In a column from last year, I framed the suggestion that offering agency within the space of a theatrical encounter might activate the possibility of action beyond that space. “To act,” I argued, “we must first believe that we are capable of action”. I went to Coney’s Salon slightly unsure about that argument, beginning to question whether being asked to act in the theatre really offers the feeling of agency or just pushes us into a role that we feel we must fulfil in order to keep up the theatrical contract – acting as performance rather than acting as action. Those startling moments in which action feels truly possible or genuine connection is briefly forged between strangers are, at least in my experience, fleeting and unpredictable.
This uncertainty is broached during the evening by Coney’s Tassoss Stevens, who speaks about interactive theatre – “for want of a better word” – and what is gained and what is lost when audiences are asked to stand up and get involved. As he recognises, we’re often trapped by a “tyranny of politeness” when at the theatre; we acutely feel the delicacy of that theatrical contract and our role in upholding it. It also doesn’t help that theatre is seen as synonymous with fakery, so in a sense whatever happens in that space becomes fake too, with the potential that audiences fail to gain a true sense of action from being invited to get involved and actually lose the quiet reflection that is summoned by the experience of sitting together in the dark watching something unfold. Is there ever room for anything real in the theatre?
One possible answer to some of these problems was offered right at the beginning of the night, in a talk given by theatremaker Hannah Nicklin. Speaking of her own work and its foundation in listening, in creating a community that exists between the “what is” and the “what if”, she frames the question of action slightly differently:
We cannot ask people to act. We can only offer them a space where they might recognise their being in the world, their being together with others, and their implication – the effect they might have upon that nexus. A space for action. A space of community.
We can offer them the community found in the in-between – in between possibility; in between you and me; in between idea and action – and we can offer them the ability to play with it without worrying it might break – by making it with them. Knowing that our coming together is impossible. Knowing the point is we try.
It’s that last sentence that feels most important, whether we are making, viewing, responding or doing. The point is we try.
The space that Nicklin talks about offering is a similar space to that described by Adams through the work he creates with Blast Theory. A space that is less about changing minds than about offering people the opportunity to have conversations. Adams speaks in particular about Ulrike and Eamon Complaint, a piece that guided participants through the streets of Venice via a number of phone calls, culminating in a probing one-to-one conversation that begins with the question “what would you fight for?” Although in this instance the word “fight” contains the unspoken implication “kill”, the same question might just as easily apply to the things we are willing to stand up for, in art and in society. So maybe that question is a start. What would you fight for?